South Korea’s not done yet with the coronavirus. Although Seoul’s performance has been a paradigm for success fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, the battle goes on.
After clocking more than 900 cases in a day at the end of February, the number of new cases dropped below 100 for four days this week, then spiked upward with 152 cases reported Thursday. To cite a phrase that’s now familiar, the curve seemed to be flattening, but that doesn’t mean the disease can’t break out anywhere, any time.
“It’s still scary,” said Kim Han-jin, an office worker in Seoul. “We have a long way to go.”
We talked as frightening news was reported about the death of a 17-year-old boy in the city of Daegu, the original epicenter of the virus in South Korea, after he previously tested infection-free.
A subsequent test turned out positive, said the Korea Centers for Disease Control, but the disease was discovered late—after it had attacked the young man’s vital organs from the kidneys to the lung and heart. As fever persisted and he had trouble breathing even in a respirator, “all his organs collapsed, and he died suddenly,” a health official told Korean media. The Korean CDC has ordered more tests on tissue samples.
The case shocked people not just because the infection was missed in the first test but because the victim, assuming he died of COVID-19, would be the youngest Korean to succumb to the disease. “That means the virus can attack anyone,” said Kim. “It’s not just the elderly who are victims.”
South Koreans have gotten used to text messages and alerts on their phones telling them where groups of people and even individuals are known to be infected. They’ve also undergone the most massive testing in the world, primarily focused on groups where the disease is known to have propagated.
Then there’s another concern: several hundred thousand South Koreans working, studying, or vacationing abroad may have been exposed to the bug. Many are returning home as the world locks down, while others still plan to travel.
The foreign ministry has urged all those who might go overseas “to carefully consider the need and possible rescheduling.” Singling out 36 countries for level-2 warnings, the ministry advised “checking travel restrictions taken by each country and region due to the spread of COVID-19."
As for those already out of the country, the ministry asked them “to pay special attention to their safety by making sure they are not exposed to COVID-19.” Regardless of where they’ve been, all those coming back face stringent testing minutes after getting off the plane before going through immigration.
In fact, high-tech South Korea is making a demand that may be quite difficult for the tech-impaired or tech-averse. According to a terse notice from Korean Air, “All passengers arriving Korea must have an available phone number and mobile phone device for installing self-diagnosis app.”
The danger of returnees driving up the statistics was also evident in China and its two quasi-independent appendages, Hong Kong and Macao.
“Imported” cases rose in China as well as Macao, but that’s to be expected considering the numbers leaving the U.S., Britain and the EU countries looking for safety in places where the virus appeared more or less under control. Naturally, some people tested positive after landing.
As of Thursday, the city of Wuhan and the surrounding province of Hubei reported no new cases, which is very good news indeed.
As for Taiwan, the island state that exists independently 90 miles off the coast of mainland China, its borders are sealed.
That’s smart considering that Beijing, which claims Taiwan as a province, has managed to keep it outside the orbit of the World Health Organization, leaving Taiwan to fend off health hazards pretty much on its own.
Then there’s Southeast Asia where the disease is spiking, more or less. But that’s more a reflection of some Southeast Asian governments being slow to recognize there was a problem in the first place.
Singapore and Vietnam, to be sure, are notable exceptions. Singapore, as a tightly governed city-state, has been able to face the illness quite effectively. Vietnam, far larger, extending from the southern Chinese border down the South China Sea to the Mekong Delta, isn’t getting enough credit for dealing with the crisis, but at least the Vietnamese are testing.
As for the Philippines and Malaysia, they’re basically under lockdown, so far unable to stop the disease from spreading.
The country to watch in Southeast Asia is Indonesia. It was very late to confirm cases in the country, even though it's a tourist hot spot for Chinese people (Bali, in particular). It now has the highest official death toll among Southeast Asian countries.
But let’s not say COVID-19 is riding the crest of a second wave, as some headlines have suggested. More accurately, the official count is going up with back-loaded additions.
That’s pretty much in line with what’s happening in South Korea where assiduous testing is picking up ever more cases. Among the 8565 who had come down with the disease as of Thursday, 91 mostly elderly people with underlying illnesses have died.
But after all the precautions, and now with the death of a Daegu teenager, the question many ask is what’s gone wrong?
In the search for scapegoats, it’s easy for Koreans to blame church groups for insisting on holding services even though the risks are known. “Small groups keep attending,” said Kim Han-jin. “They think God will save them.”
The initial source of the illness in Daegu was the fringe Christian sect, Shincheonji, some of whose members had picked up the bug when visiting converts at a “house church” in Wuhan, scene of the first outbreaks in December and January.
Shincheonji’s 230,000 members have almost all been tested, driving up the number of Koreans recorded with infections, but other churches also are being tagged as centers of “cluster infections”—along with a call center and one Zumba class.
In Seoul, 82 cases were among those working, or in contact with workers, at a call center while another 19 had attended a church and an internet center where kids often gather in close quarters to play computer games.
In Gyeonggi Province, which surrounds the independent cities of Seoul and the port of Incheon, 50 cases were among worshippers at one church. And another church was the source of 32 cases in the southeastern port city of Busan, all of whom had returned from a church retreat a month ago.
“I’ve stopped going to church,” said Jang Sung-eun, a regular parishioner in Seoul. “I’m praying at home. They need to stop regular services.”
Major religious organizations, highly sensitive to the outcries, are postponing celebrations around two huge annual observances–Buddha’s birthday and Easter.
The country’s biggest Buddhist order put off Buddha’s birthday celebrations from April 30 to May 30 and the Lotus Lantern Festival, a colorful popular event preceding the birthday bash, from April 25 to May 23. The United Christian Churches of Korea, including the Presbyterian church, Korea’s largest Protestant denomination, said it would postpone its Easter parade from April 12 for two months.
Churches, however, aren’t the only ones under fire for group gatherings. Anywhere people meet a cluster may develop, which is why “social distancing” has become a slogan for survival.
In the city of Cheonan, 52 miles southwest of Seoul, 118 new cases were discovered among people who’d enrolled in Zumba classes, a form of fitness training in which people dance in rows in a relatively small space.
Unlike in Washington D.C. and other U.S. cities, numerous coffee shops, restaurants and bars remain open despite warnings and declining business. With clusters blamed for 80 percent of all diagnosed infections, however, that’s enough to have persuaded many to operate on reduced hours and lay off staffers as customers dwindle.
Only in extreme cases, such as the historic market district in Daegu, have authorities enforced a total shutdown of all businesses. At the same time, the government runs drive-by sites where people can get tested with a quick swab inside the mouth and nose, getting results in a few hours.
Authorities for the most part prefer to issue advisories rather than direct orders.
In Gyeonggi Province, the local government told internet cafes and karaoke rooms and clubs to be sure to disinfect the premises and ventilate rooms that often are shut tight. That demand followed a similar order for all 140 churches in the province to abide by the same rules.
The provincial governor, Lee Jae-myung, was apologetic. The government “tried its best to avoid restraining economic activities amid difficult economic circumstances,” he said, but “the administrative order is inevitable to prevent cluster infections at clubs, internet cafes, karaoke rooms and other public-use facilities due to the danger of droplet-based transmissions.”
The scare was enough for the American embassy in Seoul to cancel appointments for all those looking for immigrant or nonimmigrant visas. South Koreans, however, can still travel to the U.S. under the current waiver program, meaning they don’t need visas for most visits.
Cancellation of visa interviews, said the embassy, “is part of social distancing that requires all U.S. missions in all countries affected by a level 2 travel advisory or higher.”